The documentairy “Thin Ice“, with spectacular images and interviews with a few dozen of well-known and lesser well-known climate scientists, is available for viewing tonight on their website (which features lots of other interesting content btw). At the same time, various public screenings are being organized all over the world (unfortunately not in the Netherlands, mea culpa). The free viewing via their website is probably temporary, though I don’t know for how long (my guess is a few days). The premiere has of course been timed to coincide with Earth Day.
Archive for the ‘Communication’ Category
Guestpost by ClimateDialogue editors Rob van Dorland, Bart Strengers and Marcel Crok
Exploring different views on climate change
Goal of ClimateDialogue.org
ClimateDialogue.org offers a platform for discussions between invited climate scientists on important climate topics that have been subject to scientific and public debate. The goal of the platform is to explore the full range of views currently held by scientists by inviting experts with different views on the topic of discussion. We encourage the invited scientists to formulate their own personal scientific views; they are not asked to act as representatives for any particular group in the climate debate.
Obviously, there are many excellent blogs that facilitate discussions between climate experts, but as the climate debate is highly polarized and politicized, blog discussions between experts with opposing views are rare.
The discovery, early 2010, of a number of errors in the Fourth IPCC Assessment Report on climate impacts (Working Group II), led to a review of the processes and procedures of the IPCC by the InterAcademy Council (IAC). The IAC-report triggered a debate in the Dutch Parliament about the reliability of climate science in general. Based on the IAC-recommendation that ‘the full range of views’ should be covered in the IPCC-reports, Parliament asked the Dutch government ‘to also involve climate skeptics in future studies on climate change’.
In response, the Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment announced a number of projects that are aimed to increase this involvement. Climate Dialogue is one of these projects.
We are starting Climate Dialogue with a discussion on the causes of the decline of the Arctic Sea Ice, and the question to what extent this decline can be explained by global warming. Also, the projected timing of the first year that the Arctic will be ice free will be discussed. With respect to the latter, in its Fourth Assessment Report in 2007, IPCC anticipated that (near) ice free conditions might occur by the end of this century. Since then, several studies have indicated this could be between 2030-2050, or even earlier.
We invited three experts to take part in the discussion: Judith Curry, chair of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology; Walt Meier, research scientist at the National Snow & Ice Data Center (NSIDC) in Boulder, Colorado; and Ron Lindsay, Senior Principal Physicist at the Polar Science Center of the University of Washington in Seattle.
Future topics that will be discussed include: climate sensitivity, sea level rise, urban heat island-effects, the value of comprehensive climate models, ocean heat storage, and the warming trend over the past few decades.
Each discussion will be kicked off by a short introduction written by the editorial staff, followed by a guest blog by two or more invited scientists. The scientists will start the discussion by responding to each other’s arguments. It is not the goal of Climate Dialogue to reach a consensus, but to stimulate the discussion and to make clear what the discussants agree or disagree on and why.
To round off the discussion on a particular topic, the Climate Dialogue editor will write a summary, describing the areas of agreement and disagreement between the discussants. The participants will be asked to approve this final article, the discussion between the experts on that topic will then be closed and the editorial board will open a new discussion on a different topic.
The public (including other climate scientists) is also free to comment, but for practical reasons these comments will be shown separately.
The project organization consists of an editorial staff of three people and an advisory board of seven people, all of whom are based in the Netherlands. The editorial staff is concerned with the day-to-day operation of researching topics, finding participants for the discussion and moderating the discussions between the experts. The main task of the advisory board is to guard the neutrality of the platform and to advise the editorial staff about its activities
Project leader is Rob van Dorland of the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute (KNMI). Van Dorland is a senior scientist and climate advisor in the Climate Services section and is often operating at the interface between science and society.
The second member is Bart Strengers. He is a climate policy analyst and modeler in the IMAGE-project at the PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL) and has been involved in the discussion with climate skeptics for many years.
The third member is Marcel Crok, an investigative science writer, who published a critical book (in Dutch) about the climate debate.
We welcome comments on this blog and are happy to answer any questions regarding this project. You can send an email to info [at] climatedialogue [dot] org.
Postscript (Bart V):
(Disclaimer: I am involved in this initiative as a member of the advisory board)
I think ClimateDialogue is a unique project in both its organization (people with wildly different views are involved) and in its aim: Facilitating a public discussion between scientists with strongly differing opinions.
Discussion topics are chosen to be relevant and interesting to the general public as well as receiving scientific attention. Discussants are chosen to reflect different stances in the spectrum of scientific opinion, explicitly including ‘sceptical’ voices. Naturally, the ensuing discussion is not necessarily representative of the full spectrum of scientific discussion (painting it as such would likely lead to a ‘false balance’).
The idea is that the discussion can alleviate the polarization between ‘sceptics’ and ‘mainstreamers’ and provide some clarity in background of the (dis)agreements. Moreover, having scientists discuss their scientific disagreements in a public setting can go a long way to increase the public trust in science, which has suffered from the (imho incorrect) impression of being closed-minded. All in all, I think that ClimateDialogue provides a valuable service to both the public and the scientific debate. That doesn’t mean that it’s free of risks, but these are more in the framing and the perception than in the discussions itself. Naturally, the participation of good scientists is a necessary condition to make this experiment a success. Don’t hesitate to contact the editors (or me) if you fit the bill and are not afraid of a public debate!
Slightly different version has been posted and discussed at Planet3
A few weeks ago I attended a meeting on science communication and the increasing public distrust of science. Climate was not the major theme, though it did come up as an example (not least because I was an invited speaker, as a blogging scientist / scientific blogger).
Cees van Woerkum: Modern vs traditional communication
The first speaker was professor in communication science, Cees van Woerkum. I attended his lectures 19 years ago. He explained how the old model, of a sender and a receiver of communication, was no longer valid (if it ever was). Modern communication is characterized by a much more active role of the audience in selecting what information to take in. Also, the message is not inert, but rather gets meaning in an active and social process.
Drawing on examples from biotechnology, carbon capture and storage, and vaccination he argued that scientists should take the concerns of citizens seriously. Laughing at somebody for calling biotechnology “unnatural” is not going to take their worries away or change their mind. Calling fears of side effects from vaccinations “dangerous nonsense” doesn’t quite work either, especially not if those concerns have already been anchored to a certain extent through social construction. If a scientist calls the chance of CO2 leakage from a storage facility vanishingly small, the response is “so it’s not impossible?!” A potential way out according to van Woerkum is to ask what’s behind their concerns: What do you mean by unnatural?” Then you can at least start to have a conversation.
Jona Lendering: A different field of scientific inquiry facing large scale disinformation
This was followed by a presentation by author and historian Jona Lendering. Although the topic of his talk was something entirely different (about ancientPersia) the similarities with the climate debate were striking. He explained how this field of academic enquiry (about the origin of Western civilization) was being “attacked by anti-scientific tendencies” (aiming to glorify one culture’s role). The scientific establishment hardly participated in the public debate on the internet. As a consequence, the anti-scientific views got more traction and mainstream science failed in (what should be) one its core missions: Informing the public. He repeatedly stated the mechanism: “Bad information drives out good information”. He also mentioned the “intense hate” with which the “attack-machines” approach science. It was as if I was listening to Kevin Trenberth; the dynamic between a skeptical-cynical part of the audience and mainstream science was just too similar.
Me: Dilemmas in science communication
I talked about the dynamics of blog discussions and about the dilemmas that one encounters in trying to communicate scientific insights to a broad audience, mainly in the sphere of understandability vs completeness:
I mentioned that imho mainstream media suffers from too much emphasis on news (as opposed to robust knowledge) and on mere facts (to the detriment of explaining the scientific process of getting to understand those facts). In the blogosphere I see too much emphasis on details (to the detriment of the big picture) and on uncertainties (to the detriment of robust knowledge).
The last one on the list I actually added based on the dilemma that van Woerkum alerted the audience to: As a scientist (or science journalist), you can no longer easily claim “listen to me, I’ll tell you how it is”. You have to take the concerns of citizens seriously.
But what to do if those concerns are not openly expressed, but rather disguised in scientific sounding (but incorrect or sometimes even plain silly) arguments? “Climate change is due to the sun” or “Iranis the origin of Western civilization” or “vaccination causes autism”? The underlying reason for skepticism often remains hidden. As a scientist, you’re sucked into a quasi-scientific argument. How else can you react, than by saying: “no, that’s not the way it is. It’s this and this way, for such and such reasons”? But such a reaction is being characterized by skeptics ((mis-)using van Woerkum’s words) as “unjustified superiority of science”. Is explaining how science sees it a hopeless strategy?
In line with van Woerkum I think it’s important to focus on the underlying reasons for distrusting science. We should really discuss why we disagree so strongly about climate change (e.g. due to differences in worldviews and in risk perception). Keith Kloor cites Scott Denning (who spent a lot of time talking with contrarians, e.g. at two consecutive Heartland meetings):
Almost everyone that dismisses climate change as a problem does it for ideological or political reasons, not for scientific reasons.
Of course, there are also other potential reasons, but this one is surely a biggie.
Discussions about hockeysticks and feedbacks are all very interesting, but they are not the crux of why there is a such a heated and politicized debate about climate change. We don’t have a similar public debate about the mating behavior of fruitflies after all.
Richard Tol levied a strong accusation at Judith Curry for highlighting two seriously flawed papers (via twitter):
Its wrong, but with @JudithCurry lending her authority it becomes disinformation
Judith defended herself in a post where she tries to shift the blame to the mainstream scientists:
Here is a quiz for you. How many of these disinformation tactics [a list containing a mix of logical fallacies and avoidance tactics] are used by:
- JC (moi)
- Public spokespersons for the IPCC
- Joe Romm
- Marc Morano
If that’s not a dog-whistle I don’t know what is.
Keith has a nice rundown of the discussion, and the ensuing thread over there contains many good comments. He’s got a knack for hosting interesting discussions.
Richard has since laid out his argument as to what’s wrong with the papers in a guest post over at CE. Basically they’re methodologically flawed:
Using “detrended” fluctuation analysis to study “trends” was a dead giveaway that something is not quite right with these papers.
Tol goes on to write:
7. There is a substantial body of climate research that is credible — even if it reaches opposite conclusions — but there are also papers (left, right, and center) that are just flawed.
8. If flawed papers reach a certain prominence, they should be debunked. Prominent but flawed research does damage as it misinforms people about climate change. Publicly criticizing such research hardens the existing polarization.
9. If flawed papers linger in obscurity, they should be ignored. The papers are wrong but do no damage. Lifting a flawed paper out of obscurity only to debunk it, is no good to anybody.
Curry takes especially issue with the last statement:
Yours isn’t a statement about science, but about playing politics with science, and reinforces the gatekeeping mentality in climate science that was embarassingly revealed by the CRU emails. (…)
Of course scientists don’t want the public to be misinformed about the science! So If I’m concerned about public understanding of science, I’m automatically “playing politics with science”? Then I sure hope every scientist is.
Judith rightly says that “Of course there are flawed papers that get published.” But why shining the spotlight on them? What’s gained by doing so?
It’s true that these discussions don’t occur about science without policy relevance. Research on the mating behavior of fruit flies won’t result in argument whether a flawed paper should be promoted in the public sphere or not.
The differences are that 1) such research is not present in the public sphere, because the public isn’t interested, and 2) even though flawed papers exist in any field, the more its conclusions clash with ideologies, the more attempts will be made to reach opposite conclusions and thus the more deeply flawed/biased papers will be published. It’s not a coincidence that there’s no fruitflies-version of EIKE or Heartland.
Most people don’t come to climate etc. to reinforce their prejudices (there are far too many echo chambers where this is much more satisfyingly accomplished). They come here to learn something by considering the various arguments.
The general tone of comments at CE makes me strongly doubt this last statement.
I would agree with you [no harm done by highlighting flawed studies] if climate blogs were exclusively read by well-intentioned, well-informed, and intelligent people.
Richard further shows his mastery in the tweet-universe with one-liners such as
I argue for self-censorship. It is what separates adults from children.
within a managed class structure with someone guiding the discussion, it is fine to discuss flawed texts, for the reason given: it encourages critical thinking. That wasn’t what Curry was doing.
Curry took two papers that almost nobody had read, and put them in the limelight.
The papers say 2+2=5.
There are a lot of people who would like to believe that. It is not true.
So now there is yet another dogfight about whether the answer is 3, 4, or 5. We can do without that.
There are plenty of real issues to argue over.
Jonathan Gilligan, consistently thoughtful, writes:
Pielke has said that he views blogs as more like the kind of discussions people conduct over beers at the neighborhood bar, and from that perspective Richard’s criticism makes no more sense than telling the crowd at the pub to leave sports commentary to the experts.
Tol makes some valid points here, but Pielke is more persuasive. People will read these blogs or not as they choose, and when a blog repeatedly calls attention to crap, its credibility and its audience will adjust to reflect this. Climate Etc. is not The Wall Street Journal, so the greater danger in Curry’s gushing over crap is to Curry’s reputation, not to the public understanding of science.
With academics blogging and tweeting, and journalists, and prime ministers, and institutes, departments, agencies and companies, I don’t think there is a one-rule-fits-all.
At CE, thousands of people are listening. Judith’s opinion and her writings make their way to the general public and politicians via mainstream media and Senate hearings as well. By the scale of those who are engaged in the conversation, that is orders of magnitude different from a discussion in a bar. That also means that the risk is twofold: Both to Curry’s reputation (her problem) and to the public understanding of science (everyone’s problem, even though Curry tries to belittle that).
Whereas Tol argued based on methodological flaws, Fred Moolten explains why the papers’ conclusions are unsupportable on physical grounds and I made a similar argument:
Conservation of energy precludes the climate to wonder off too far in any direction without being “forced” to by changing boundary conditions. Unless of course the energy is merely being redistributed within the system. Which it isn’t, since all other compartments of the climate system are gaining energy.
The paper’s conclusion that the observed warming is “predominantly a natural 100-year fluctuation” is at odds with conservation of energy.
Listen to Scott Denning’s sharp and to-the-point presentation, which he gave at Heartland’s climate conference, here. It’s worth the full 16 minutes of it. He rocks. Alternatively, read this little recap:
Denning attended the Heartland conference for the second year in a row and it seems like he’s outdone himself by giving an even better and sharper presentation than last years (which was excellent as well).
He emphasized some very important things:
- The big picture is what matters; details do not (at least in terms of policy relevance; for science nerds of course it’s different)
- Part of that big picture is that, whatever the sensitivity, a 400% increase in CO2 is going to make a big difference to the climate, because of the simple fact that adding heat warms things up.
- He offered a big challenge to the (strongly contrarian and libertarian) audience: Propose and advocate for effective solutions, otherwise others will. Policy will be enacted anyway. His challenge got particularly strong when he said “do you want Greenpeace to dictate the policy? (…) Are you cowards?”
The approach people take to climate change varies widely. They can be distinguished e.g. by the importance they place on climate change (or trust placed in the science), and by the conditions they put on potential solutions or response strategies. This gives rise to four different response strategies to the problem, along two axes:
Some archetypical responses for each quadrant are laid out in this cartoon:
(*): To which the German Coastguard in need of English language training replies: “What are you sinking about?” Cartoon adapted from Jip Lenstra.
There are of course loads of varieties possible here. Some contrarians may say: The water looks pretty nice. Some scientists (and so called “merchants of doubt”) are in fact saying: We’re thinking (and are not sure what’s happening. Let’s wait and see). Libertarians may say that life boats commissioned by the government are not to be trusted. And some greens may dream up a world of mermaids.
There are some interesting dynamics between the different archetypes: Most arguments happen in the horizontal direction (belief vs disbelief in an impending climate catastrophe; trust vs distrust of climate science; liking vs disliking certain lifeboats), whereas most liaisons occur in the vertical (between people who share the same (dis-)belief in climate change, but differ in the restrictions they place on response strategies).
Arguments on the science occur between the two upper panels: Is the boat sinking? Arguments on the response strategy often occur in the realm of the lower two panels: What restrictions (if any) do we place on the lifeboats? Are other agenda’s playing a role (besides wanting to save our souls)? Sometimes, the lower two panels actually partner up, like in those cases where they share a dislike for a certain lifeboat (CCS for example). Naturally, if you’re on a sinking boat most people will let go of any restrictions. Perhaps we can turn that around: The more restrictions people place on the lifeboat, the less severe they apparently think the problem is (in comparison with other issues).
If you think the boat can’t sink (upper left), then it doesn’t make sense to invest in a life-boat (lower left). Unless you like the lifeboat for another reason, e.g. for energy independence or to avoid peak oil. That would be a typical lower left panel response: You want a specific boat, but you don’t care much about climate change. Burning coal is perfectly fine according to this mindset. If OTOH you think the boat is sinking (upper right), then it makes sense to get a life boat (lower right).
The reverse is also happening (much to the detriment of the discussion): Some people have such a strong dislike for the lifeboat (lower left), that they therefore deny that the boat is sinking (upper left). Others like green lifeboats so much (lower right), that they shout out loud that the boat is sinking (upper right) without actually understanding how or why or when. They are prone to exaggerating the problem.
These styles of argument (from bottom to top) basically argue the science as a proxy for what the disagreement is really about: Liking or disliking certain boats.
Gotta love analogies…
In the previous thread a discussion ensued about how to gauge someone’s credibility. Tom Fuller said that a
message needs to be evaluated by the normal criteria we use for messaging.
1. Is the message credible and coherent?
2. Are the messengers credible and coherent?
3. Are the actions of those who preach and believe the message consistent with the implications of their message.
anybody who believes that CO2 driven warming presents a serious threat to humanity ought not be regularly jetting off (with enormous CO2 emissions!) to exotic destinations like Tahiti for climate science conferences. Climate scientists who want their (un-welcomed) message of extreme future warming to be well received must be (and must be perceived as) more pure than Ceasar’s wife.
To which I replied:
The physics of radiative transfer and feedbacks are not the least dependent on whether climate scientists fly to Tahiti or not.
If you can only address a problem when you’re pure as the driven snow, than no problem will ever be addressed.
The more complex the chain of cause and effect, the more more complex the third point [walking the walk] becomes. If someone says that too much coffee is bad for you, but in the meantime downs 8 cups a day, I guess he can say he’s addicted (and perhaps he is). His message will however lose credibility indeed. But would you care to venture a guess how many people drink more coffee than they think is good for them? People don’t always act in accordance to what they (think they) know. It seems a little too easy to dismiss someone’s message because they too possess that very human trait. And then I’m only talking about drinking coffee. In a complex area such as climate change, people have vastly different perceptions on how it should be tackled and on their own role in that. Projecting how the messenger should behave, and then dismissing them because they don’t, is sometimes a little too convenient of an excuse to dismiss the message I think.
The fact is that taking the message and really following up on it, may well push you into the area of “activism”, which then becomes an easy way to attack the message and the messenger itself. Good examples are the attacks on Al Gore for investing in sustainable energy and doing CO2 trading, and those on Jim Hansen for demonstrating against coal mining.
I.e. communicators are damned if they do and damned if they don’t walk the walk. It’s so easy to condemn them for not walking the walk you had in mind. And if they walk too much, they’re to be dismissed as “activists”.
Willard extends my coffee analogy to include Irish coffee:
The preach what you teach or the walk and talk argument pertains to public relations, not communication per se. When an alcoholic says to me that alcohol can be bad for you, I tend to believe that person. But I am not sure I would take an intemperate drinker for my nation-wide week of soberness.
the central message of the “climate consensus” is that AGW is real, that the consequences are likely to be serious and it needs to be addressed. The extent to which this means we have to change the way we live is more debatable, there really is no consensus about the specific policies which are required in order to combat AGW
Even people who agree on the science and on the needs to address AGW, can disagree vehemently about *how* to address it. That is actually the discussion we should be having in society.
Andrew on the wider context of credibility and behaviour:
In any debate on a question of science the messengers should surely be judged primarily on the extent to which they can support their arguments with references to established science – that is what gives the message credibility and coherence. (…)
And of course scientists are not the only messengers, there are others (such as yourself) and their credibility should equally be held up to scrutiny. (…) It is often suggested that the whole furore, controversy etc around the subject of AGW is down to the actions of climate scientists and others who advocate action on AGW as if the “skeptics” have no responsibility for the situation or no agenda of their own. This is nonsense – they have an active roll in this saga and they have to accept responsibility for their actions. Even if they have an electric car.
If someone is claiming that as an individual I should be taking specific actions then obviously I would expect them to do the same, but otherwise I’m really not interested in examining the lifestyles of those who support action on AGW.
And now it’s time for something uplifting:
‘Of course scientists can communicate’ (Tim Radord’s Nature column)
there are reasons why scientists, in particular, should be and often are good communicators. One is that most scientists start with the engaging quality of enthusiasm. (…)
Enthusiasm is infectious, but to command an audience of readers, scientists should exploit their other natural gifts. One of these is training in clarity. Another is training in observation. And a third is knowledge. (…)
thoughts have value only when expressed, and the more clearly they are expressed, the greater their potential value. (…)
The problems for the scientist as a public communicator start with academic publishing: the language, form and conventions of the published scientific paper could almost have been devised to conceal information. (…) So to be effective communicators, scientists have to learn to stand back from their own work and see it as strangers might do. (…)
And while we have our ducks in a row, let me invoke the canard that scientists occasionally propagate about the media: that it does not appreciate scientific uncertainty. That one is especially irritating. It seems to say “I, as a scientist, wish to have it both ways. I want the privilege of knowing better than you, and the indulgence of being wrong without guilt, because science, don’t you see, is really about uncertainty.” To which the foolish answer might be “In which case, why should we listen?” But alas, people in any case listen selectively, even to the best communicators, which might be why so many Americans think Darwin’s theory of evolution is “only a theory”. Scientists are not the only people to blame for a problem in communication.
If large proportions of the public believe demonstrably silly things (such as young earth creationism or that the earth is the centre of the universe or that AGW is not happening*), perhaps that’s a sign that there’s something in human nature that makes them prone to believing silly (though comfortable) things? Humans may have big brains, but we’re by and large not very good at intuitively understanding things that we can’t directly observe (that probably wasn’t a highly needed survival skill during our evolution). Or is it something in our culture? Or the education system? Or all of the above?
The problem with many of these complex questions is that the most boring and least useful answer is usually the right one: All of the above…
The real issue is perhaps not so much how to improve the journalists’ or scientists’ communication, but rather how to depoliticize the topic of climate change. Picked up at Yulsman’s,
The impediments imposed by the way audiences filter what we say based on political belief systems means that our [journalists] work can only effect things at the margins.
(the same can of course be said for scientists’ communication efforts)
(People’s) beliefs, whether sensible or otherwise, about a whole range of empirical questions are determined by their political identity.
The good news is, the climate debate hasn’t always been as politicized as it is now:
Polls show that as late as 1997, Republicans and Democrats had virtually indistinguishable views on the science of global warming. But an aggressive campaign by the fossil fuel industry and conservative think tanks to cast doubt about the scientific evidence that human activity is warming the planet changed that. Today, public understanding of climate science reflects a deep division along partisan lines.
Undoing that division is key. I found Jonathan Adler’s thoughts interesting and thought provoking (mostly so for libertarians) in that respect.
*) Even though all of these examples taken as absolutes are rather silly/unlikely, I don’t mean to imply absolute equivalence between these examples. Jeez, since when are disclaimers needed on blogs?
There’s a semi-continuous argument going on about who’s to blame for the lack of public understanding about climate change. I’ve discussed the communication conundrum a few times as well, and assigned blame to various quarters, e.g
The popular media often paint a false picture of the scientific debate by giving the tiny minority viewpoints equal footing as the consensus viewpoints.
Most scientists are very bad at talking about their scientific field in plain, understandable language.
Though of course both statements in isolation miss the broader point, which is that
there are weaknesses in all parts of the chain that hamper the communication and use of climate science: A lack of good communication by scientists, a lack of scientific literacy amongst the public, the education system, the political system, a lack of fact-checking by the media, disinformation by vested interests, etc.
John, tell your friends to get off the all scientists are lousy communicators and it’s their fault that the science is not being communicated kick and maybe we can talk.
To which many journalists would understandably reply: Exchange “scientists” by “journalists” as well while you’re at it. And both would be right.
John Fleck points out that, apart from egregious examples that exist e.g. in the opinionsphere journalism,
the data would suggest that journalists across the major press publications in the area I deal with most closely – climate change – are doing a creditable job.
Max Boykoff, now at the University of Colorado, has done the most work on this. His most recent analysis of newspaper coverage of climate change found that the British tabloid press “signiﬁcantly diverged from the scientiﬁc consensus that humans contribute to climate change,” but that what Boykoff calls the “prestige press” (NY Times, Guardian, LA Times, Washington Post, etc.) pretty much gets the story right. Despite the widespread belief in a “false balance” problem, Boykoff’s most recent data showed a steady decline in the problem, such that in 2006 (the most recent year for which he’s got data, sadly), just 3 percent of the US and UK stories he surveyed did the “false balance” thing.
William puts the lion’s share of responsibility with the public:
But if the public wanted intelligently written journalism that actually explored issues carefully, they would get it. Alas (as far as I can tell), most of them want entertainment, but they want to feel good about watching it, so they want to pretend they are watching news, so effectively they are asking to be lied to. And that is what they get.
There’s something to that. Over the years, even the evening news and the weather forecast have changed in its narrative and appearance so as to be more about entertainment than about information. Election debates. Blogs. People want entertainment and they want it now. Gimme a quick fix, quick. Next, what’s next? There’s no time for learning or reflection.
Jonathan Gilligan has a similar line of thought as William, putting the responsibility on the public to consume the information they chose to:
There are lots of great books by scientists and journalists, so why do we assume that deadline journalism is so much more important than books for getting accurate and clear information to the public?
Yes, there’s bad journalism and there are bad books, but there are also excellent examples of both and if we can’t trust the general public to figure out what’s trustworthy, then it’s game over for democracy regardless what we do for the environment.
While rather gloomy in its ending, I think Gilligan is right that news journalism (interesting discussion on that thread, esp. the back and forth between Gilligan, Kloor and Tobis) isn’t the type of medium that we can expect to cover slowly unraveling stories in any depth. But even deadline news journalism is usually put in a certain context, where such issues can be touched upon. And there’s also background journalism, science journalism, and other kinds of communication (by scientists, journalists or whomever) that could rise to the occasion.
Which gets us to the point that it’s really about. Quoting mt:
the real question isn’t “whose fault?” It’s “what now?”
These are some of the take-home messages or lessons from “climategate” as I see it. They are strongly related to each other, with the overriding theme being that disagreements about climate change are not so much about the science, but rather about a clash of underlying values, ideas (e.g. related to risk perception) and ideals. Scientists are caught in the middle of this trying to defend the science against various distortions (while also having their own values, ideas and ideals of course).
- There’s no strong relation between knowledge/information and people’s perceptions: Just the facts won’t do. It’s all about the narrative. Climategate resonated because it could easily be spun into the underdog fighting the mean establishment. Scientists and those communicating the science should take a lesson from this: Don’t be such a scientist when communicating with non-scientists. Tell a story rather then flooding people with facts, numbers and uncertainty intervals. Steven Mosher, in a comment at Judith Curry’s, points to another lesson to be taken from this: Focusing on the consensus feeds into this underdog-versus-establishment narrative. I think he’s got a point there, though of course it is based on a faulty dismissal of a scientific consensus as being meaningless. Perhaps we should stress that the consensus is not monolithic, but rather concerns the big picture only, and even there it is still a bell curve of viewpoints rather than unanimous agreement.
- Climate science is embedded in a wild sea of culturally differing views, where values and ideals clash. Scientists should consider this (partly hostile) public environment when communicating about climate science. Retreating in the ivory tower of academia would be a detriment to the public discussion. I think we should consider strategically effective ways to convey scientific insights to the public and policymakers.
- The animosity towards climate science is even greater than we thought it was. Those who object to the perceived policy consequences of the mainstream scientific view go through great lengths in order to try to discredit the science. This has had an effect on how scientists and their supporters communicate (or not) with the public: Many have gotten afraid for speaking out publicly, while some others have gotten more strident or even defensive. Both reactions are understandable, even though neither are useful imho.
- Not directly a consequence of climategate, though it did bring it into clearer focus, is that there are many other aspects besides science that influence one’s policy preferences. It applies to those who argue the science as a proxy for arguing the politics, but it also applies to defenders of the science; it applies to everyone. Endless arguments about sea level rise in 2100 are perhaps not so useful when the underlying disagreement is much more about different values (e.g. about valuing the present versus the future; freedom versus responsibility; how to deal with risk) than about the Greenland ice sheet. This is tricky though, because scientists and their supporters (I really need to come up with a proper word) will still feel the need to defend the mainstream scientific view against distortions. I don’t know how to best deal with that catch 22.
- The need for increased transparency and openness of data and code is now widely shared. I think this is an inevitable and inevitably difficult process, but “climategate” reinforced the importance of such transparency for public trust and credibility. It will not convince the more fanatic “skeptics” out there, nor will it prevent such smear campaigns from happening again in the future. But it will help to make the wider public, who are more or less agnostic about the topic, more immune to various accusations of secrecy and fraud. And that’s important.
- Citizen science has taken off over the last year. I’m not sure if it’s just anecdotal evidence based on my blog reading or a sign of a real trend (where’s VS if you need him ;-) but I have a feeling that there’s much more interest and participation amongst non climate scientists in actually doing analyses themselves, most notably related to the temperature record. And some good work is coming out of that. I don’t regard it as a dramatic change in how science overall is conducted (its effect is much more on the public trust and perception), but it’s an interesting development nevertheless, and a more productive way of using one’s energy than blogospheric shouting matches.
Visit climatesight for a good and readable summary of “climategate”. See the Yale forum for an interesting collection of scientists’ view on lessons learnt. I get a sense that overall, many of them don’t disagree with my rant about how low of an action this was. Gavin retells the story of what happened over at RC.
Update: The second installment at the Yale forum is up, about science journalists’s views of lessons learned. Elizabeth Kolbert’s answer to what journalism should have learned is noteworthy (my comments in [...]):
The obvious lesson of faux scandals like “climategate” is that they tend to be created by groups or individuals with their own agendas, and journalists ought to be very wary about [uncritically] covering them. The notion that there is some huge scientific conspiracy going on, involving dozens of researchers at different institutions, is pretty implausible on its face. This goes for climate science as for all other scientific disciplines. I’m not saying it can’t happen; it’s just hard to imagine how it would work. Conversely, it’s very easy to imagine why an individual or a group with an economic or political [or ideological] interest would want to claim that such a conspiracy existed. The burden of proof ought to be very high. Instead, it seems the bar was placed ridiculously low.